Italian History

Greater Venice – Or How a Swampy City Dominated the Eastern Mediterranean

Venetian Fortress in Crete

Many people can name the great Empires: the Roman Empire, the British Empire and even the Mongols roll quickly from the tongues of people with even rudimentary educations.

But there existed a powerful empire that many people don’t recall offhand, and that empire was the Venetian Empire.  Yes, the tiny city of Venice, mired in a swampy lagoon once possessed the largest trade empire in the Mediterranean with colonies stretching to Greece, Cyprus and Turkey, many of which they held on to for centuries.

The Arsenal Of Venice

This empire was a major actor in the crusades and in the subsequent wars between Christianity and Islam.  The Venetian Arsenal (map above) was the engine that produced most of the ships that sent crusaders on their way as well as the ships that fought–and won–the battle of Lepanto, possibly the most important naval engagement between the two warring monotheisms.

In light of its importance, it does come as a bit of a surprise that so few people know about this particular empire.  I’m a bit of a history enthusiast, but though I knew it had existed, I only recently learned the details about it.

Why is that, I asked myself.

I think there are three major reasons for its lack of fame.

The first is geographic.  This empire wasn’t a contiguous land empire in the tradition of Rome or the Mongols.  People seem to have an easier time imagining this type of structure.  For a far-flung sea empire to live in the imagination, it needs to have good marketing (the sun never sets on the British Empire).

The second and third reasons are psychological and, to the medieval / renaissance mind, possibly moral.  For one thing, the Venetian Empire’s big break came because they betrayed one (possibly two) supposed allies.  Having contracted to take a group of crusaders to the Holy Land, the Doge decided to have them sack Constantinople, an allied Christian city, instead.  The riches from that expedition were the cornerstone of the empire.

For another thing, the “crusades” fought by the Venetians were more about trade routes and money than about religion, despite claims to the contrary on both sides.  The Venetians had no problem with muslims.  They traded with them when it suited them and went to war when it suited them.  Everyone knew this, and for that reason, they never admired the Venetians in the same way as they admired the crusaders who spent time in the Holy Land (even though their own motives were also often suspect).

The Venetian Empire - A Sea Voyaye - Jan Morris

Anyhow, it’s a fascinating tale and, as you can probably imagine given my track record of buying Folio Society books, it’s one that I absorbed through reading one of their volumes.  This particular tome, The Venetian Empire: A Sea Voyage by Jan Morris is up to their usual standards and was a great read, mainly because of the colloquial way in which Morris (whose own story is quite interesting in itself) treats the subject: an island-hopping tour of the empire, with the history thrown in in such a way that it hardly intrudes.

This book landed squarely in our Italian period, which also helped make it interesting… even though Venice was only recently grafted on to Italy, and then by force majeure (it took Napoleon himself to do it, in fact).

I would strongly recommend this one to anyone who wants to learn about this somewhat forgotten historical period…  Or to any general reader looking for something a little bit different.  A great read, and one that will teach you a bunch of stuff you didn’t know.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer active in several genres whose most recent science fiction novel is Incursion.  You can buy it here.

 

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When Italians Look Back

Ferrara Jewish Ghetto

Our Italianite period continues today with the review of one of the great Italian books of the 20th century.  Now, other than Umberto Eco, I haven’t read that much modern Italian literature but, falling victim to the Folio Society’s beautiful marketing pitch and the fact that their books are utterly wonderful, I decided t purchase The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani.

When reading the description, I expected to find a book very similar to Brideshead Revisited, which I loved.  Instead, I found a book with a darker edge and an utter lack of the poetry of elegy.  Of course, that might be down to the translation, but I didn’t feel that Waugh, as a writer and evoker of feelings, has anything to fear from Bassani.

Nevertheless, the book, which starts somewhat slowly, does become engrossing by the end, when things begin to unravel for the protagonists and the relationships between the young characters become a little more muddied.

Of course, we are told on the first page that the story has a sad ending, as it deals with a group of Jewish families on the eve of the Second World War.  The impact was lessened in my case because it became impossible to fall in love with–or even to truly sympathize—with the mercurial Micòl, the narrator’s love interest.  I generally have no problem falling head over heels for this kind of character, and what is basically a Holly Golightly character should, in my opinion, have been much more compelling.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani

But if the characters left me a bit cold, the same can’t be said of the setting.  While the city of Ferrara as described by Bassani is unremarkable, the walled home of the titular family becomes a kind of unforgettable wonderland which lives on in memory long after the foibles of the characters are forgotten.

I haven’t seen the film based on the novel, perhaps it is better than the book when it comes to characters–what Micòl lacks in writing can be fixed by any decent casting director (sadly, it wasn’t… just did a google image search)–and I’d love to know what those of you who’ve seen it think.

Anyhow, if you enjoy unforgettable settings or different takes on the Holocaust, this one may be for you.  Others might prefer to read Brideshead Revisited for the elegiac content or Breakfast at Tiffany’s for Micòl done right.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He is the author of Siege, a far future science fiction book which explores what it means to be human–and why that definition matters.  Buy it here!

When Culture Catches us by Surprise

Florence Fuomo

We’ve all seen them: the books about the touristy city we’re visiting (on the Grand Tour, perhaps?).  They are generally in a wire rack, sitting beside the plaster statues of the tower of Pisa, the brass replicas of the Eiffel Tower, the I ❤ New York t-shirts or whatever serves as a knickknack souvenir for the city you’re visiting.  The place to find these things is usually a hole in the wall store about twenty feet deep and just wide enough for one person to slip between the colorful rows of merchandise.

The books are usually, and for some reason known only to the creators of tourist books, given a dust cover of thick transparent plastic, the literary equivalent of coke-bottle glasses and visible from a mile off.

As far as I can tell, the main purpose of these books in the stores is to gather dust, remind people what city they’re in and also to ensure that the rights owners of sepia-toned photographs of the city as it was will continue to receive royalties.

My parents stocked up quite a number of these in the early eighties.  They were placed in the library… and continued to gather dust (the books, not my parents).

One day, I was in an Italian mood.  An idea for a novel set in Italy just before the First World War had been buzzing about in my head for ages, so I was grabbing anything Italian I could get my hands on.  I’ve already spoken about one of the books I read, and another came off the pile of souvenir books.

Florence the City and It's Art by Luciano Berti

The one I picked up happened to be Florence, the City and its Art by Luciano Berti.  As I read, the book surprised me.  It seemed a bit too erudite to belong to this subcategory.  It truly was a history of the city, but no less of its leading families, so long intertwined with the world of renaissance art.  There were no recommendations for popular places of entertainment, no pandering to the least common denominator.

It’s not surprising when one thinks about it.  Berti, after all, is a reasonably eminent art historian, so his work was always going to be a bit challenging for the average Hawaiian-Shirt-clad tourist, but more of a mystery is why the publisher decided such a book might be a good idea.

I have two theories regarding that last point.  The first is that they truly wanted to show the value of Florence as a cultural gem of the world.  The second is the Berti was the lowest bidder and they cynically speculated that no one would open the thing.

I’ll leave the decision regarding which is true up to you, but I’m delighted they chose the path they did.  There are many worse ways to spend a couple of lunchtimes than to become immersed in the wonderful world of renaissance art.

I’m sure there are many of those books in your home.  One never actually buys them, of course, but they seem to accumulate anyway.  Do yourself a favor and read one.  Maybe you’ll get as lucky as I did.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose novel The Malakiad deals with a very different kind of tourism.  In the Greek heroic era it was usually advisable to do one’s touring well-armed and with a bunch of military-minded friends…

 

The Italians, by an Italian

castello-banfi-montalcino-tuscany-italy

We have a thing for Italy here on Classically Educated.  Whether it’s because that’s where a lot of the “Classic” part of our moniker took place or whether we simply like the idea of Tuscan sun falling on a suitably hilly vineyard, it’s the one modern nation (along with England, of course) that we can’t get enough of.

We’ve discussed Italy’s literature, their participation in WWII and even encouraged people to take the Grand Tour (which, back when it was a thing, was essentially a jaunt around Rome, Venice and Florence).  But the links above are just the tip of the Iceberg.  Search for the keyword Italy on this blog and you’ll be bombarded with entries.

So you can get a pretty good idea of what both I and our contributors think of that boot-shaped appendage to southern Europe, but what do Italians think about themselves?

The Italians - Luigi Barzini

To get an idea of that, I heartily recommend reading Luigi Barzini’s The Italians.  Part history lesson, part politico/philosophical tract and part meditation on the national temperament, it delivers the goods.

Like most peoples, Italians are quite conflicted.  On one hand, the modern people are the inheritors of a glorious past of which they are justifiably proud.  On the other, the really glorious part took place about two thousand years ago, and the more recent past has been more of a mixed bag in which a general lack of distinction has been peppered with certain bright moments, occurrences and individuals.  The years after the Florentine renaissance ended, in particular, were grim ones.

Barzini, despite his often caustic look at his countrymen, also harbored a geniune affection for their foibles.  Reading between the lines, he seems to be telling his readers that the idiosyncrasies are what makes Italians Italian, and you can’t have one without the other.  In this, though less overtly humorous (and much more critical), he reminds me of the portrait of the English that Bill Bryson painted for us and which we discussed earlier.

The cover of the edition I read portrays this beautifully.  The man shown is not a Medici (or even a Borgia) but a mercenary who later took over a town and ruled… in a hugely humanist and enlightened way.  The perfect symbol for the people described in the text.

Oh, and you won’t forget that nose very soon…

Verdict on this one is: pick up a copy, you’ll probably enjoy it (and learn new stuff while you’re at it).

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose latest book is about insane Greeks.  He promises to insane Italians next, if enough people pester him to.

A Stained-Glass View into a Simpler Time

A Stained Glass Tour In Italy

In the early twentieth century, tourism was mostly an upper-class pursuit.  Due to the way the upper classes were (and to a certain degree still are) educated in those days, this made for a very different kind of tourism.  The mere concept of going to Coney Island for a Hot Dog Eating Competition would have been met with a mixture of derision and outright disbelief.

While you’re not really going to find too many equivalents of the glorious Grand Tours in the years just before the Great War, you still found erudite madmen going off on interesting expeditions.  Heirs to Victorian obsessions, these adventurers were hobbyists and diarists that make the people who dress up as Stormtroopers for Comic Con (or worse, science fiction writers) look like normal, well-adjusted human beings.

Many of them left books behind regarding the unlikeliest of subjects, I was delighted but unsurprised when a volume entitled A Stained Glass Tour in Italy appeared at the annual jamboree at our local Anglican Church.

But, before I talk about the book let’s talk about this church.  I’m not religious in the least (and certainly not Anglican), but I love the place.  It is a lovely stone building that looks like it should be situated somewhere in fictional Wessex in the early 19th century and not a block from my house in the middle of a heavily built up sector of one of the world’s megacities.  It was the perfect spot to find a book like the one above, my copy of the Stained-Glass tome.

St Saviour's Church Belgrano

The book itself is a first edition, albeit worn frayed around the edges and well-aged, and probably the thing that I loved most about it was the fact that I was the first person in its over 100 years of history to read the thing completely.  How did I know this?  Because some of the pages were still uncut.  So, for two dollars, I purchased a journey back in time and the thrill of trying to separate pages with a steak knife (long story) without tearing them.

The book itself was a charming example of something that would never have been touched by a modern day publishing house.  A couple of wealthy friends go on a tour of northern Italy for the express and arcane purpose of viewing significant works of stained glass in the regions churches.  As they guide us through the towns they visit, the focus is on the glass and a brief history of the art form, but glimpses of life in the Italian countryside before WWI peek nostalgically through.  My lasting impression of this book is one of sunlight bathing dusty country roads and sand-colored buildings, slightly crumbling but once magnificent.

The book itself is interesting, too, with a number of laid in photographs and a strangely folded map, its production values would be dismissed as an amateur production today, but carries the stamp of the Bodley Head, a major publisher in 1911.

But it’s the writing which carries the day.  This book functions as neither a comprehensive guide to Italian stained glass nor as a reasonable tour guide for the era.  A labor of love, written – and likely published – with little or no consideration for any commercial value, in a tone that is as affectionate towards the subject as it is to any reader interested enough to open the volume.  It’s the work of a generalist who happened to love stained glass, a product of a polymath and a man of his time (Charles Hitchcock Sherrill – ambassador, athlete and stained-glassophile) that we like to think would be an avid reader of Classically Educated today.

We were definitely avid readers of his book!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer.  His best-known book is the science fiction novel Siege.